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The funkiest documentary in Radio 4 history

Friday 26 November 2010, 18:07

James Hale James Hale Producer/Director

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In the first half of the 1970s Stevie Wonder released four landmark albums that changed the course of pop music. A combination of funk and synthesisers, this incredible collection of music includes many of Stevie's classic songs such as Superstition, Living for the City and You Are the Sunshine of My Life. These albums have been influencing songwriters, musicians and producers ever since their release.

Although no one's disputing Stevie Wonder's unquestionable genius, it was Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil's production talents and electronic ingenuity that gave him the tools to develop his finest work, now regarded as his 'classic period'. These two sonic architects developed the world's largest synthesiser - The Original New Timbral Orchestra - which features heavily on all of those records. They invented a unique recording environment that captured Stevie at his most creative, encouraging him to play all the instruments himself. It was a world away from the stifling environment of the Motown hit factory and it allowed Stevie to fully realise the songs he had in his head for the first time.

Cecil and Margouleff also released an album of ground breaking electronic music under the name of Tonto's Expanding Head Band. They also went on to work with big name acts such as The Isley Brothers, George Harrison, Gil Scott-Heron and Devo. Malcolm - now in his 70s - still has TONTO set up in a barn at the bottom of his garden. It's a fantastic-looking thing, incredibly complex and the size of a living room. It's in full working order and he was kind enough to show Radio 4 around his other-wordly creation.

James Hale is producer of Stevie's Wonder Men

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    I could never figure out why Bob Harris was the only person ever to play a track from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s ‘Zero Time’ (he was also the only person to Paul Horn’s ‘Inside’ [1]) on the radio. Even stranger, he always used to play TEHB immediately after a Seals and Croft track!!!!

    Without wishing to sound common, I am cautious about knocking anything to do with Mowtown or any Soul related music. As part of a bagging-off strategy, it was more rewarding to express an infinite enthusiasm for songs like Lamont Dozier’s ‘why can’t we be lovers’ (Andy Peebles favourite) or the Originals: ‘Good Lovin’ is Just a Dime Away’ [3]. I tried discussing the contents of ‘Talking Book’ with a female music fan once, but she kept pulling strange faces relating to my interpretations of the songs and then just walked off :( I cheered myself up with a blast of Rory Gallagher [4]. Love the way Rod D’Ath’s was monitoring Rory so closely on this version of ‘hot coals’. How on earth Rory produced those harmonics (4:38) is still a complete mystery to me. The young Rod De’Ath was the spitting image of one of the R4 high-ups.

    P.S. Surprised there's No mention of Can in your posting?
    PPS Very saddened to read of the recent death of General Johnson

    References

    [1] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Horn_(musician)
    [2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grltqfc0ZWw
    [3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRmzT43ejys
    [4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5Hsu-A-WYM

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    Comment number 3.

    Sorry - meant to say Beaver and Cross in Line 4

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    Comment number 4.

    One of the advantages of having work cancelled due to bad weather..you get to listen first hand to great Radio 4 programmes...

    Tonto's Expanding Headband...I remember from the early 70's listening to the work of those guys...as a young teenager...fantastic documentary...popped up out of the blue...cheers..

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    Comment number 5.

    What a fabulous programme! The four Stevie Wonder albums mentioned here belong amongst the very best of 20th century music,and even an ardent admirer such as myself was only dimly aware of Malcolm Cecil's and Robert Margouleff's contribution. Thank you for putting the record straight. If you're in doubt as to how much of a contribution they made listen to Stevie's subsequent offerings, which, although frequently touched by genius, consistently disappoint when compared to his work with Malcolm and Robert.

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    Comment number 6.

    I think you mean Beaver and 'Krause' in line 4...For years I've been trying to educate people here in Leic. about Tonto/B&K...even bands who have an electronic influence that came to play had never heard nor the local electronica/noise boyz(there never seem to be any fem's...actually I'm wrong..there was one who played a night at a local Indy. Arts ctr).Anyone heard of Moondog...?

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    Comment number 7.

    Thank you, feeedback, for reminding us about Moondog. According to the BBC Music site he was last played on the BBC on Radio 3's Late Junction last week.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

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    Comment number 8.

    Message 6


    Sorry for the error. I bought Can, Neu, Tangerine Dream and Amon Düül
    LP’s , but I didn’t like the B&K track that Bob Harris kept playing, so never followed up on the music. On Moondog, Hmmmmmmm, I smell a rat……..especially your name. Is the Routh Stability Criterion important within your life? Suffice it to say: ‘Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time, but now that it's the opposite it's twice upon a time’:) What’s your view on Prof. (doesn’t she old the Gresham chair of music?) Joanna MacGregor’s interpretation of his music?

    P.S. Lovely (as in very warm) picture of the late Moondog and his daughter on the internet if you Google his name

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    Comment number 9.

    From quite a young age I have loved electronic music. In recent times the BBCs treatment of the genre has been poor. In fairness, putting the Radiophonic Workshop aside it's never been particularly good with emphasis placed upon the mainstream. It brings to mind a recent BBC 'Latenight Review' programme where the participants were discussing the 'death of the LP'. Not once was the electronic music movement, past or present, mentioned which left me bemused as the 'LP' is alive and kicking. So, when I happened upon this programme on Radio 4 on the 30th November I was pleasantly surprised. I hang my head in shame - I had never heard of Tonto's Expanding Headband. However, I have heard some pieces since the broadcast and they are wonderful. So thank you for the show, opening up a whole new strand of musical creativity, more shows like it and more coverage of electronic music, please. And by 'electronic' I don't mean 'electronic' guitars, with reference to the misleading 'electric proms'!

    The only thing to add is this: are there plans to make the 'Tonto' catalogue more easily available?

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    Comment number 10.

    Message 9

    I am not sure how ‘pure’ the electronic content of music has to be before one can define it as electronic, but check out The Third Ear Band (lots of stuff on you tube). Also listen to Terry Riley’s ‘Rainbow in Curved Air (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apxuRKWmEJs) Soft Machine’s ‘Out-bloody-Rageous’ ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exuykykj2UI&feature=related ) from Soft Machine 3 is also worth a listen (gorgeous intro) if you like electronic music.

    They played this at the Proms in 1970 and the music establishment were furious. One of my teachers – a classical music fan – warned me that I would end up in the gutter if I continued to listen to such ‘rubbish’. The John Peel fans (as opposed to the goodie goodie Beethoven fans – with short hair - and future Oxbridge undergraduates) spent the next few weeks whistling the repetitive sax part in the piece and we then started to reproduce those strange sounds that Robert Wyatt started to make later on during the Albert Hall concert.

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    Comment number 11.

    A wonderful documentary. It made me dig out their CD again for the first time for a few years.
    For anyone who is looking, the CD is called "Tonto Rides Again" and was released in 1996. It contains 13 tracks: all of the original "Zero Time" album, plus a number not previously released.

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    Comment number 12.

    Great programme. In my BBC radio DJ days I also occasionally played Tonto, and once interviewed Bob and Malcolm on Radio London. No mention here of the Stabat Mater that they recorded for Kama Sutra in 1970. It was released in the UK and I played it in full one Good Friday, which seemed appropriate. Stevie may not have thanked them for the Grammy but Bob did have one for a Wonder album on his office shelf in Topanga Canyon. I went over to LA and stayed with them and vividly recall wandering into the main room of Malcolm's house in Malibu in the middle of a sleepless night, to find TONTO quietly humming a tune to itself.

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    Comment number 13.

    Great comments, guys. Particularly nice to hear from Andy Finney, Radio 1 alumnus, on this one.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

 

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